When Ian Bell trained to be a rigger, he never imagined that one day he’d be drinking rum with Hollywood A-Lister Johnny Depp and teaching him how to tie knots.
But the pair got on famously when they both worked on this summer’s big film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Hollywood heartthrob Depp takes a starring role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the movie series. Yet to Ian he was just another person on set.
He says: ‘He’s a nice bloke and as normal as you can be in those circumstances. We had a bit of rum together and we got a little bit loud.’
As they spent time working together, Ian got the chance to chat to Depp.
‘I was trying to teach him how to tie a knot and he wasn’t very good,’ explains Ian.
‘I was saying ‘‘you’re sacked, you’re rubbish, we’ll get someone else’’. All these sycophants were saying ‘‘oh no, you can’t say that’’. Well I’m over a foot taller than him, so I can say what I want!’
Ian was one of only two people building a piece of mast ready for filming in Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. They were given just nine days to complete it, so worked for long hours with only short breaks until it was done.
He says: ‘There was always a rush to the catering truck, eat some food and then back to it. At the end of the day, it’s a job and everyone wanted to go home.’
Filming proved to be interesting for Ian, as he and his colleague had to stay out of camera shot and control where the ropes would fall so that it looked realistic.
‘You can’t cut a rope with a plastic sword, so we had to make it look believable,’ he says. ‘We had to reset the scene quite a few times to get it to look right.’
There was constant pressure on Ian to ensure that nothing went wrong during filming. His in-depth knowledge of not just rigging but just about everything ship-related helped to make scenes in the film look so authentic.
With the huge workload and strict deadlines, he says it takes the right type of person to be able to cope.
‘You have to just be able to do it,’ he explains.
‘There’s not an opportunity to go back and redesign something, you have to do it right first time and that’s that. A film unit costs thousands of pounds a day, so any delay because something’s not ready is just unthinkable.’
Along with his experience, knowing the right people has helped Ian get into the movie business.
‘A friend of mine works at the studios. He knows everyone so when it comes to nautical rigging people ask him who he knows, and between us we sort it out,’ Ian explains.
When the 42-year-old isn’t behind the scenes on films and doing jobs for a props firm at Pinewood, he can be found working locally in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on board HMS Warrior and HMS Victory.
Ian’s always been passionate about ships and grew up longing be involved in the care and preservation of Victory. He has proudly worked on Warrior since the early 1990s, and began work on Victory just over 18 months ago.
In building a section of mast seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, Ian could well have used inspiration from Victory.
He says: ‘The period of the ship in the film is slightly before the Victory, but what tended to happen was that the technological advances meant that things leapt forward in steps.’
This meant the Victory and the ship in the film ended up being similar in many ways.
‘It was a few hundred years where things didn’t change very much,’ adds Ian.
Although he loves working behind the scenes on films, as a father-of-three he tries to avoid jobs where he would have to be away for months at a time. But he loves getting his children, Henry, Sidney and Emily, involved wherever possible.
‘I desperately tried to get Henry to the studio when Pirates of the Caribbean was being filmed. People there encourage it,’ says Ian.
‘They get inspired quite young, so I was keen for Henry to see if there was anything there that took his fancy.’
RIGGER STARTED ON CUTTY SARK
Ian Bell began working as a rigger on the 19th century clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1985, gaining experience until he started his own company, Bell Rigging.
‘When I was younger, no-one took me seriously running a business,’ he explains. They were always waiting for the boss to turn up.’
Now working with Cutty Sark at Greenwich, plus HMS Warrior and HMS Victory and other historic ships, Bell Rigging has become highly successful and Ian is very proud of his business and achievements.
‘I have a very low threshold of boredom,’ Ian says. ‘I need that variety of tasks.’
He’s proud of his involvement with such iconic ships, saying: ‘It’s amazing to be able to have an effect. The guys that work for me always want to come and do this job rather than any others.’
His team use their knowledge and skills to keep the ships they work on looking traditional. But they combine this with modern safety techniques, which not only makes the job much safer, but also easier for them to move around the rigging.
‘It can cost huge amounts to get other people to do a job, but we can do it by abseiling,’ Ian says.
‘We are the natural enemy of the scaffolder.’
In 1992 Ian Bell’s company worked on pirate-themed action film Cutthroat Island, where three ships with more than 60 guns had to be built.
‘Two of them were replicas, but they were full-scale replicas,’ explains Ian.
‘The best way to make it look good was to do it properly, so it worked and functioned properly.’
Working on a film set gave Ian the opportunity to learn new skills. On other assignments his in-depth knowledge has been used to help ensure that dialogue is correct and that technical aspects are accurate for the period being portrayed.
But Ian says that working on films isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
‘There are nice bits,’ he says. I’m sure the premieres are quite glamorous and lovely, but they’re a million miles away.’